The debate over immigration policy has been marked by inaccurate reporting in an astonishing number of instances. Errors and material omissions by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Census Bureau, and the Department of Education are only the beginning of misinformation about immigration. News releases and publications by experts, including some associated with the federal government, add to the confusion about the population explosion most Americans observe in their communities.
The mistakes are systematic. All direct the reader (listener, viewer) to believe that the U.S. population is not growing unusually fast compared to that of other industrialized countries, that immigration is a negligible source of this growth, and that immigration is not contributing to many of the nation’s social problems.
For example, the H1-B and refugee debates are being revisited. As of March 2000, congressional subcommittees on immigration had voted out proposals ranging from an additional 45,000 H1-B visas this year to as many as 195,000 additional visas over the next three years.
In 1998, months of congressional debate over increasing the number of H1-B visas to allow additional skilled immigrants to enter the United States culminated in raising the number of visas from 65,000 to 115,000 for two years and then 107,500 in the third year. Additional provisions of the so-called American Competitiveness Act of 1998 gave amnesty to 50,000 Haitians who were illegally in the United States and delayed for 30 months the implementation of provisions of a 1996 law to expedite deportation of illegal aliens.
The debate was marked by acrimony and conflicting statistics. Invited to testify before Congress, the presidents and chief executive officers of numerous information technology (IT) companies explained that they needed to import computer software specialists in order to remain competitive. American universities, they claimed, were graduating insufficient numbers of IT specialists. T.J. Rodgers, president and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, struck the prevalent note: “[W]e have strong feelings about the value provided by immigrant engineers—and also about the factually hollow, emotion-driven claims of those who insist the U.S. semiconductor industry could retain its current global leadership without an adequate supply of high-quality engineers, including immigrants.” Rodgers added that “The need for skilled workers in the hightech sector is growing exponentially. . . . Foreign skilled workers do not take jobs from Americans . . . but, in fact, create additional jobs from jobs.”
Industry representatives and congressional allies, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI) foremost among them, relied on several sets of data to bolster personal testimony. For example, they argued that, between 1994 and 1997, the Labor Department and the Commerce Department nearly tripled the number of job openings it “certified,” a declaration that no American was trained and available to do these jobs. A survey by the Information Technology Association of America found that “Half of all respondents cited [a lack of high-skilled workers] as the biggest barrier” to growth. Finally, the Hudson Institute concluded in Workforce 2020 that the skilled-labor shortage could “shave 5% off the growth rate of GDP.”
Others argued that the labor shortage is a mirage. Edwin Rubenstein suggests, “The alleged shortage of highly educated workers in the U.S. is a myth. In fact, we’re suffering from a chronic surplus of Ph.D.’s.” In June 1998, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House of Representatives Immigration Subcommittee of the Judiciary, released a survey showing that 21 American high-tech companies had dismissed 121,800 workers since December 1997. As Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science, said in an interview with Investors’ Business Daily: “The problem is that most employers prefer less-expensive talent. Most software firms surveyed hire less than 5% of the software professionals that apply for jobs. Microsoft Corporation hires 2%. Brodebur Software Inc. hires just 1%.”
The General Accounting Office (GAO) is likewise skeptical of the purported labor shortage. Its assessment of the U.S. Department of Commerce study is that it “has serious analytical and methodological weaknesses that undermine the credibility of its conclusion that a shortage of IT workers exists.” The GAO further criticizes the Information Technology Association of America findings, saying that the association had relied “on two employer surveys with ‘unacceptably low’ response rates of 14 percent and 56 percent.”
Hardly mentioned in this debate is the long-term effect of responding to labor-market shortages by importing immigrant labor: namely, to dampen wage increases that would otherwise occur, which is, of course, the subtext in industry’s lobbying for additional immigrant workers. However, higher wages for skilled labor are not necessarily bad for the economy.
Demand-induced market adjustments in the price of labor are the traditional capitalist mechanism for overcoming labor shortages. Higher wages signal those seeking employment, or considering an area of specialization, to select the sector where wages are rising. This raises the quality of American jobs while ensuring that the shortage will be temporary. In addition, higher-cost labor is an inducement for industry to invest in capital projects or training that increase productivity. These arguments have lately been submerged by the concerted lobbying of groups that have an interest in high levels of immigration.
In tandem with the Competitiveness Act, Congress passed a weak version of the Religious Persecution Act sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). In its original form, this bill would have authorized a new State Department office to certify religions whose adherents are persecuted, granting automatic refugee or asylum status to any practitioner of a certified religion in the specified countries. This bill would have put the burden of proof that an individual was not a bona fide adherent of the certified religion on U.S. agencies, essentially opening America’s borders to unlimited immigration at the discretion of the State Department. Its enactment in a weaker version raises the possibility that its provisions will be strengthened over time until its sponsors’ original goals are achieved.
In March 1996, Rep. Lamar Smith and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) sponsored legislation to reduce immigration. The bill had substantial bipartisan support despite being opposed by the leadership of both parties, notably President Clinton, Senators Edward Kennedy and Spencer Abraham, and Representatives Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.
Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, testified that immigration had declined ten percent in 1994 and again in 1995. One month later, when the bill’s momentum had dissipated, it was leaked that legal immigration in 1996 was expected to increase by 41 percent over 1995 and that a similar increase was expected in 1997. The INS had apparently been in possession of these facts at the time of Meissner’s testimony.
“If the INS had projections about the dramatic hike in legal immigration and did not release it to Congress before debate on the effort to lower immigration numbers, its actions were unconscionable,” charged Senator Simpson.
The effort to reduce legal immigration ended with the 1996 bill. Provisions to control illegal immigration—many of which have subsequently been gutted by the INS—were substituted for the original bill. It is likely that no immigration-restriction legislation will be enacted unless the United States enters a recession.
Robert Warren, director of the statistics division of the INS, has also found occasion to use immigration data creatively. In Population Today, the house organ of the Population Reference Bureau, Warren concludes that “immigrants currently account for 20 percent of the gross annual additions to the population.” The statement is technically correct as the answer to the question, “What fraction is immigration of the sum of births plus immigration?”
The catches, however, are the word “gross” and the misleading title of Warren’s piece, “Immigration’s Share of U.S. Population Growth,” which suggests a calculation of the net demographic impact of immigration. Using Warren’s own figures, the correct answer to the query posed in the title of his paper is 39 percent, not 20 percent.
Physicist Albert A. Bartlett’s comment on Warren’s procedure is trenchant:
The substitution of the answer to one problem as the answer to another superficially similar problem is an old and honorable art that shows no sign of decline. But it is surprising nevertheless to see this strategy used in an article by an author who is identified as “director of the Statistical Division of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
Bartlett continues: “A separate but related issue is the significant difference between the data used by Warren and those from another source that uses INS data to record and report the number of immigrants entering the United States.” Warren’s percentage figure is applied to a population increase of just 2.8 million. But the Center for Immigration Studies tabulated immigrant categories for the same year, 1993-94, and concluded that the annual immigrant flow accounted for 43 percent of a 3.1 million increase in the population. Asks Bartlett, “Is it Warrens [desire], or the desire of the INS, to make immigration figures look as small as possible?”
The sleight of hand continues. As demographers Dennis Ahlburg and James Vaupel observe, “Population projection is not a bloodless technical task, but a politically charged craft of great interest to policymakers and the public.” Not surprisingly, scenarios for future population size and composition vary enormously.
For example, the National Research Council (NRC) takes 1995 as the baseline year in its projections. With “zero” immigration hypothetically beginning in 1995, the population would grow to 310 million and begin to decline before 2050. Under the “medium” immigration scenario, the population grows without stopping, reaching 387 million by mid-century. By making this the middle projection, the NRC appears to imply that this is the most likely scenario.
It is not. At present, the U.S. population is growing by about one percent annually. A growth rate of one percent causes the quantity to double in 70 years. Given the conservative population estimate of approximately 274 million in late 1999, the United States will have a population of 546 million by 2069. Indeed, one of the more recent Census Bureau estimates puts the U.S. population at almost 500 million by 2050.
The pattern of Census Bureau projections, however, does not inspire confidence. Past assumptions about immigration, fertility, and mortality rates resulted in several years of unrealistically low projections of future population size. In 1989, the Census Bureau’s middle projection was just 300 million by 2050. Its high projection, 414 million, received little media attention. Within the year, however, demographers Ahlburg and Vaupel wrote that, under assumptions which seemed plausible, the U.S. population in 2050 would likely be at least 400 million and possibly as high as 553 million.
The composition of the population is another important consideration. Polls suggest that most Americans, especially blacks, want large reductions in immigration and would prefer that the future population of the United States be composed of their own descendants, rather than immigrants. The keys to evaluating the makeup of the future population are immigrant flows, ethnic-group fertility rates, and the year used for the baseline population.
If one projects to the year 2050 from 2040, immigration accounts for relatively little population increase. In 1996, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report stating that, by the middle of the 21st century, immigrants and their descendants will account for 60 percent of all population growth since 1994 if current trends persist. If the baseline year is 1970, however, when the impact of the 1965 immigration law that elevated the criteria of diversity and “family reunification” first became manifest, the scenario is far different. According to demographer Meredith Burke, “immigrants after 1970 and their descendants account for three quarters of current American population growth” and will account for “90 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2030-and all of the growth after 2030.” Move the starting line, and the numbers change.
The same thing occurs when the impact of immigration on education is examined. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley announced an enrollment crisis in American education in a special report entitled The Baby Boom Echo, released on August 21, 1996: “Twenty-five years after the baby boom generation set a national record for school enrollment. . . it is fitting that the children of the baby boomers are doing the record breaking.”
The problem with the report’s tide and conclusion is that the recent large and rapid increases in the school population are not primarily the result of children born to baby boomers; Riley’s attribution is disingenuous. The baby boomers have below replacement level fertility; they are not reproducing themselves.
Linda H. Thom, a retired statistician from the Santa Barbara (CA) County Administrator’s office, attacks the Education Department’s report with the department’s own data—which can be found in the report itself or in the Digest of Educational Statistics. Analyzing enrollment trends between 1975 and 1990, Thom finds that “nationally, average daily attendance (ADA), excluding California, declined by 5,542,207 students. In California, however, ADA increased by 699,030. Large enrollment gains were also experienced in Florida and Texas.”
These three border states lead the list of immigrant destinations in the United States. In California, the major immigrant destination, county-by-county comparisons of the school-age population show that the children of immigrants and children who have themselves immigrated account for the higher enrollment numbers.
The increase in child poverty is a related issue. Secretary Riley states that many more of America’s young people live in poverty now than three decades ago: “In 1970, near the peak of the last [school] enrollment high, the number of young people living in poverty barely exceeded 10 million. In 1995,the number of young people who were struggling reached 15.7 million.” Riley otters no useful explanation of what caused this increase.
However, Thom suggests, “If immigration caused the enrollment increase, then immigration caused the poverty increase.” During the 1980’s, California, Texas, and Florida accounted for 98 percent of the increased caseload in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that, for that same decade, “the total number of school children declined by 23 million,” and the number of white and black school-age children also declined. But the number of poor students increased. Thom concludes: “Hispanic and Asian/Pacific children accounted for all of the added poor, school-age children.”
Educational achievement often reflects parental education and values. Unfortunately, Mexican and Central American immigrants average less than an eighth-grade education. Mexico and Central America are not only the source of the largest annual immigrant flows into California and the United States in general; Hispanic women now account for approximately 18 percent of all births, up from 14 percent in 1989. Mexican, Central, and South American women (not Cuban) account for most of this increase.
These facts are never mentioned in connection with the problems of population growth—overcrowding, budget deficits in local governments, environmental stress—that trouble Americans. Child poverty, bloated school budgets, and a poorly educated, unskilled labor force have multiple components, but a common denominator appears to be the very high level of immigration into the United States.
Many statistical reports require a second look. The National Center for Health Statistics, in reporting on illegitimacy rates, plays with the categories “white, black, and Hispanic” in a way that seems to inflate the rates for whites and blacks in comparison with Hispanics.
The illegitimacy statistics are not an isolated instance of creative reporting. FBI crime statistics report the ethnic group of victims and perpetrators, but they do so differently. Victims are classified “black, white, Hispanic or other”; but the perpetrator classification drops “Hispanic.” Under the system in place at least as late as 1999, an assault on an Hispanic by an Hispanic is reported as either black-on-Hispanic or white-on-Hispanic crime. Most Hispanics are classified as “white.” Clearly, this is an irresponsible irritant to race relations.
Similar errors are found in a range of publications. Workforce 2000, released in 1987 by the Hudson Institute, includes a particularly grievous error. The report’s executive summary announced that only 15 percent of the entrants into the workforce during the 15 years leading up to the year 2000 would be white males. The alarm was raised in every newsroom and every Fortune 500 boardroom in the United States.
The correct datum, however, is that white males were expected to be 31 percent of all entrants into the labor force, with 15 percent more entering than retiring by the year 2000. The error crept in through omission of the word “net” from the executive summary. In effect, net new skilled jobs had to grow by 15 percent just to keep pace with the job needs of young white American men, to say nothing of minorities and women.
Richard C. Atkinson, chancellor of the University of California-San Diego, exposed the error in a letter to the editor that appeared in Science shortly after the publication of Workforce 2000. But for approximately one year, no mass news media broke—or perhaps even knew—the complete story.
The erroneous report and the near-panic reaction in some quarters helped create momentum for the 1990 legislation that raised legal immigrant (green card) visas by 40 percent. H1-B visas for skilled workers were added without an offsetting reduction in other visa categories. Indeed, almost every visa category was enlarged.
Three weeks after Congress increased legal immigration visas, a sidebar in the November 19, 1990, issue of U.S. News and World Report exposed Workforce 2000‘s mistake. Were the error and the lack of timely corrections the work of gremlins?
Distortions also characterized the initial press release and certain editorial comments regarding the National Research Council study of immigration, The New Americans (1997). Sen. Spencer Abraham and the chair of the NRC study panel co-authored a piece for the New York Times that provoked NRC panelists George J. Borjas and Richard B. Freeman to respond with an article titled “Findings We Never Found.” Outraged at various misrepresentations, Harvard economists Borjas and Freeman objected that certain public figures, specifically Senator Abraham and Rand Corporation economist James P. Smith, “make it seem as if immigration is a free lunch for Americans. . . . [They] simply failed to mention that the hulk of the increase in the GNP [due to immigration] goes to the immigrants themselves as wages and salaries, not to the native born.” The economic benefit to natives is on the order of one to ten billion dollars annually—trivial in an eight-trillion-dollar economy.
Moreover, the economic benefit of immigration (growth in GNP) may be more than offset by public and social costs. Referring to the widening gap between rich and poor, Borjas and freeman explain, “The Academy report also concluded that 44 percent of the decline in the real wages of high school dropouts from 1980 to 1995 resulted from immigration. . . . There are 13 million such workers.” Immigration creates winners and losers: Employers who can substitute cheaper immigrant for native born labor win, to the tune of approximately $140 billion annually. At the same time, workers whose wages are driven down by rapid growth in the size of the labor force lose by approximately $133 billion annually. Immigration has negated 40 years of U.S. social policy designed to end poverty.
Yet the beat goes on. The INS, between August 1995 and September 1996, gave citizenship to an estimated 39,000 ineligible aliens, including 11,500 criminals, according to independent auditing and consulting firm Peat Marwick. The Peat Marwick study found that over 90 percent of the INS naturalization and processing procedures that resulted in 1.05 million new U.S. citizens eligible to vote in the 1996 election were flawed.
On November 11-12, 1998, the annual conference of the State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement attracted 1,200 participants to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Approximately half of those present were government officials. including Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Speakers and workshops addressed the means by which private and government organizations could secure public health-care and welfare programs for refugees (and asylum seekers), and how anti-discrimination legislation could be invoked to circumvent welfare limits and prevent the denial of benefits.
Secretary Shalala stated that over 39 percent of active tuberculosis cases and approximately 60 percent of hepatitis B cases in the United States are found in the immigrant population. She suggested that the prevalence of disease among immigrants could be used as a wedge to move the United States toward the national health-care model proposed by Hillary Clinton’s health-care task force in 1993-94.
Of lesser policy importance, but indicative of the mood, the moment of silence at the conference in observance of Veterans Day was not for American vets, but rather for Red Army veterans (Russian refugees) who are drawing Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI) in New York City. In fact, the increase in SSI benefits to immigrants, especially refugees, is several hundred percent greater than to the native-born population.
The refugee authorization for 1999 was 78,000 persons, not including about 20,000 Cubans who entered under a separate program. These refugees entered under the 1989 Lautenberg Amendment, which grants them immediate entitlement to any benefit available to citizens, including Social Security. Those who apply for asylum after entering the United States are not included in that 78,000; they numbered about 50,000 in 1999.
The category system for allocating immigrant and refugee visas—whether the criteria be country or continent of origin, religious affiliation, skills, or family reunification—leads to jockeying for position and logrolling among ethnic, business, and other interest groups, and results in larger numbers of newcomers and unstoppable population growth. The only strategy that will stabilize U.S. population size is to enact an all-inclusive immigration cap or moratorium. The number need not be zero, because some people emigrate each year; and the number probably ought not be zero because American citizens who marry foreigners should expect to be able to bring in their spouse after some reasonable period of time. However, the expectation that all “family reunification” should occur in the United States rather than in some other country is unreasonable. Immigration of 100,000 to 200,000 persons annually is compatible with a stable U.S. population.
By large majorities, white, black, and Hispanic voters have endorsed immigration reduction. Nevertheless, the issue has not become politically salient, unlike, for example, improving education, saving Social Security, and reducing taxes. Each of these goals, however, becomes more difficult to achieve as the immigrant population grows.
A vocal minority of wealthy contributors to both major political parties, representing left and right, have forged an alliance m support of high levels of immigration. Pro-immigration activists including the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Trial Lawyers Association, and “many Jewish groups,” according to Washington Jewish Week (March 28, 1996), engaged in “a concerted lobbying campaign” to preserve the current refugee and other immigrant flows. Barring a recession, the latent disgruntlement with high levels of immigration is unlikely to coalesce into a strong grassroots movement except in the border states. The mis- and disinformation campaigns have been a resounding success.
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